Covering Our Nakedness With Lament

First posted in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

In his little book about race, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry grapples with his history as a member of a southern land-owning family and how his racial whiteness impacts him in ways he’d previously been oblivious to. He’s willing himself to wake up. “What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness.

This frightening vulnerability – nakedness – is an inevitable part of opening our eyes to the terrifying landscape in which we’ve blissfully made our homes. Those whose racial power has concealed reality from us are shocked by what we had missed. After all, the extent of the damage and the depth of the pain are profound. How is it that we had been so blind?

The racial terror that is is generally a strong current below the surface, powerfully felt if not seen by those of us with the privilege of remaining on the surface, is boiling over. Families grieve loved ones killed on video. Cities convulse and burn. The pandemic continues to ravage communities of color. And those of us, like Berry, who’d previously found the current to be a benign aid to our way of life are having a harder time sleeping. We are waking up, by choice or by force.

This is how we discover our nakedness. Our previously held assumptions slip through our hands. How we’d imagined the world, all evidence to the contrary, is revealed for the dumb fog it always was. Interpretations and ideologies crumble. Our eyes open to the horrors with which we’ve been complicit, the lies we’ve told with full-throated conviction, and we have to ask: What is left?

We’ll want to cover ourselves now. To be so exposed is a disorienting experience and too many white people choose, after glimpsing reality, to step back into the fog. There is another option.

In 1961 James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” For those of us who are not black, the righteous anger felt by black Americans is a guide. Yes, we will feel angry but there is something else for us too: lament.

I’ve come to think of lament as a sort of limp. It does not keep us from moving forward, from joining the struggle for freedom. But neither does it absolve or sooth us. Lament is always there. It serves not as a moment or a season but an ongoing posture for the previously deceived, the still complicit, the too-slowly waking up.

Baldwin asks about how to feel the rage without being consumed by it. The answer, according to some friends who have known this life-long anger, is to not forget it. Remember the rage even when this country pretends to have changed. By staying in touch with the anger, these friends are not shocked, though still wrecked, by the racist barrage at times like these.

This is what the limp of lament can offer us. We are steeled against false promises of comfort and invitations to old delusions. We clothe ourselves with grief, anger, prayer. We join the chorus of those singing on the edge of despair, teetering but not falling, held by that newly discovered tether: the truth.

Favor in the Wilderness

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
    will find favor in the wilderness;
    I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
    and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
    and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
    and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
    on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

– Jeremiah 31:1-6

My family lived in Southern California during my high school years and one spring break we drove a couple of hours east, into the Mojave Desert. What we found was not a dry and desolate place, but a landscape with patches of green, soft blue skies, and bursts of wildflowers in every direction. After the winter rains, the desert wilderness was full of life.

The people God sent Jeremiah to found themselves in a wilderness. The Kingdom of Israel had splintered in two, and the Northern Kingdom had been carried into exile. Judah, in the south, was left uncertain and afraid about its future. Violent empires rose around them, threatening their existence. Exile seemed inevitable. And into this moment in time, God had his prophet Jeremiah remind his people of his past favor to instill hope in his future provision. There would be life and favor in the wilderness.

There are many ways to describe this collective moment in which we find ourselves. But maybe you’ll agree with me that, among its other characteristics, these weeks have been a wilderness. Not only is the pandemic ravaging our world, once again it is those furthest from our society’s power who suffer the most. Asian Americans have been scapegoated. Immigrants are expected to continue working so that the rest of us can shelter in place. Indigenous communities are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Here in Chicago, while making up only 29% of our city’s population, African Americans represent 70% of those who’ve died from COVID-19. This is a wilderness; a terrible and terrifying wilderness. It can feel God-forsaken.

Is it? The answer from Jeremiah to God’s splintered people was, No. In this wilderness you are not forsaken. Even here, even now, a there is a future worth living toward. On this Easter morning, on the other side of the crucifixion, I want to remind us that the same is true today. No wilderness can overpower our hope if it is established in Christ’s resurrection.

If we’re to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s two declarations in this passage. We need to hear his declaration about our past and his declaration about our future.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. These verses dance between the past and future. God says, “I have,” and “I will.”

[31:2] This is what the Lord says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” The sword recalls Israel’s flight from Egyptian captivity and Pharaoh’s army. After being saved by God through the parted sea, the people stood before the vast wilderness. From the frying pan into the fire.

We know this feeling today. If we make it through this catastrophic moment, then what? What about our job, our educational goals, our retirement? God’s answer to his people then, and to us today, is: There is favor in the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for favor is not about God being nice to us or giving us the things we think we need. Favor can be seen in that well-known blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God’s favor has to do with his presence, with his relational nature. The people had been freed from slavery into favor.

And rest too, according to Jeremiah. Enslaved people are not granted the daily and weekly rest for which our image-bearing humanity is made. And so to be granted rest, even in the wilderness, is a sign of God’s intentions. It’s a vision of flourishing humanity, no matter the circumstances.

God is reminding his people of the favor and rest he showed them in the wilderness. Their current events had made them forgetful. Where is God now? Why has God allowed this to happen to us? What future can we possibly imagine for ourselves?

Of course, we get this tendency. The more overwhelming our circumstances, the more forgetful we become. We want to get back to the way things were. But in their wilderness moment, God doesn’t have Jeremiah remind them of their normal days, or even their great days. Instead of pointing back to the days of King David or Solomon, God brings their memories to the wilderness: Pharaoh’s sword, the terror of the escape, the gaping wilderness before them.

Could it be that in our own wilderness moment God might ask us to remember our wildernesses of the past? That time you were sick, heartbroken, homeless, jobless, friendless, abandoned, alone. When we remember the wildernesses of the past, we also start to remember what God did.

And when we remember what God did, we start to remember who God is. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. [31:3] God is a verb and a noun: loved with love. God is love itself. His unfailing kindness is a covenant love; a never-quitting, unstoppable love. There is no human equivalent. This is why we remember those previous wilderness times.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. I showed you favor. I gave you rest. I loved you with an everlasting, unstoppable love.

Today we remember that when Christ took our sin to the cross, we could finally be at rest. Self-righteousness died. Striving for perfection died. Pleasing others, earning merit… all of our toiling died.

Today we remember Christ’s everlasting love. He loved us when we opposed, misunderstood, abandoned, betrayed, convicted, mocked, and crucified him. And on that Sunday morning his love sent the authorities scurrying and the demons fleeing; it sent Mary rejoicing and his disciples running with expectation.

On that first Easter morning, God’s everlasting, never-quitting love took back what the death had stolen. His love tore through dividing walls and ripped through curtains of separation. His love was an earthquake- raising the dead to life, loosing chains of oppression, shaking foundations of power.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is a power that makes this everlasting love a reality to behold. If we are paying attention, we will fall to our knees before this resurrected love. We will stammer and quake before it. Our knees will knock and mouths hang open. There is nothing tame or safe about the love of God. A love that led through a bloody cross is nothing to be trifled with.

But it is eternal evidence that you are loved with an everlasting love. This love has raised you from death into life. This love is transforming you from the inside out. This love has brought near the kingdom of God, pushing back the shadows of our rebellious world.

It’s a strange request to make on Easter, even stranger during a pandemic but would you remember a previous wilderness? Remember God’s loving-kindness. His rest. His favor in the wilderness. Don’t let today’s wilderness make you forget about God’s yesterday favor in the wilderness.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we also need to hear God’s declaration about our future. Our Passage begins: “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” [31:1] These are a splintered people and this is a promise of reunion.

God reminded his people of their past; now he points ahead. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. [31:4] But what, precisely, does this mean? Well, God provides three characteristics of the future promised to his people.

God’s future will be joyful.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. [31:4b] This is a spontaneous joy. It’s not the pre-planned excitement of a birthday party or a holiday. There is simply joy in the air.

God’s future will be marked by justice. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. [31:5] Samaria was, at that time, occupied. So this is a picture of reunion, but not only that. The people tending the land will also enjoy its fruit. No sharecropping here. No enslaved people toiling for someone else’s benefit. No undocumented immigrants forced to work for subsistence wages. Those who steward the land will enjoy its fruit. There will be no lack in God’s future.

And God’s future will be full of worship. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. [ 31:6] Like Samaria, Ephraim was occupied territory. So this too is a vision of reunion, but it’s not a return to normal. Worship is not coerced in God’s future. It does not compete with idols or ideologies. It does not turn a blind eye to injustice. The worship in Jeremiah’s vision is whole-hearted. It is the purpose of a people reunited.

Now, an obvious question for a people in the wilderness who are hearing God’s vision for the future might be: Do we have to wait for these things? Are we to sit around until this future arrives? The answer is provided a few chapters earlier, in Jeremiah 28, when God invites his people to begin living into this future now. For a people in the wilderness, God provides a vision of joy, justice, and worship. It’s a vision that can be lived into in the wilderness.

This is a challenge for us. In the wilderness we want to return to normal. But God is calling us forward into something new. A lot of us can’t wait to get back to normal. But I’ve seen your normal – and mine – and I don’t think it something we should settle for.

On this Easter morning, we might also remember that Jesus didn’t come to return us to normal. Jesus didn’t battle the devil in the wilderness to bring us back to normal. He didn’t confront the religious and political powers to bring us back to normal. He didn’t drive out demons, heal blind eyes and diseased bodies to bring us back to normal. Jesus didn’t raise little girls and old friends from the dead, he didn’t give himself over for betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, mocking, and crucifixion to bring us back to normal. He certainly didn’t storm the gates of hell or ascend to the heights of heaven or raise with nailed scared hands and a sword pierced side or trample the head of sin, death, and the devil so that you could get back to normal!

Israel needed to hear God’s declaration about the future while they were in the wilderness, not so they could dream about the good old days but so that they could build for God’s new day. Please don’t settle for normal when God has done something new. As N.T. Write puts it, “Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.” (Surprised by Hope, 67)

The resurrection is a future word bursting into our today wilderness. Behold, I am making all things new! A word of joy, justice, and wholehearted worship. The opportunity of this wilderness season isn’t about your old normal; it’s about the new creation accomplished by the resurrection of the Son of God.

Can I suggest that your desires for normal are not strong enough? They are faint shadows of the desires you were made for. You were made for joy. You were made for justice. You were made for worship. Let those small desires open you to the real thing: new creation streaming into this sick and weary world; breaking into our sadness and grief; redeeming our losses.

When we hear God’s declaration about our future, we understand that nothing in this wilderness can overpower our hope.

In the wilderness, God speaks to his people’s past and to their future. Remember your previous wildernesses. Did I not give you rest? Did I not love you with an everlasting love? Did I not show you loving-kindness that could not be overpowered by anything in the wilderness? I will build you up again. You will dance with joy. You will plant with justice. You will gather in worship. Reoriented by these divine declarations, the people’s hope is restored. For it becomes clear that with God, there is favor in the wilderness.

I know some of us are tired, sick, and despairing. Does the message of Easter ring hollow in the wilderness? Then let the let the despised and rejected one draw near. Let the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief draw near. Let the despised one; the one who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases; the stricken, afflicted, wounded, and crushed one draw near to you today.  He knows the wilderness. He has suffered the wilderness. And he will walk through this wilderness with you.

Turn your face to the one whose countenance is always upon you. Look to him today. He has won your future. His new creation, one day to be fully realized, is even now growing in the wilderness.  

24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” [Numbers 6:24-26]

Preaching grace and justice (at the same time) to whole people

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week a few video clips from some amazing preachers made their way across my social media feeds. The first was from Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign who, despite vehemently opposing this presidential administration, made it clear that he doesn’t hate the president. He mourns for him. Drawing from Psalm 139, Rev. Barber pointed out,

Whatever one human does is possible for another one to do. Y’all better hear me tonight. But for the grace of God you can become your enemy… So Lord I need you to do something: search me Lord. Search me. Don’t ever dislike somebody so much that you don’t realize that some of what you see them doing lies in you too. But for the grace of God.

He’s drawing deeply from the gospel here to make the point that there are none who are righteous, not a single one. We are each of us profoundly dependent on the grace that has been won for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The second clip is also from Rev. Barber. A couple of days later he spoke at an MLK event in Tennessee. There, in front of the governor, he made plain the hypocrisy of those who celebrate Dr. King while advancing policies that undercut his agenda of justice and equality.

Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity but then you deny and refuse to support his agenda, right governor? I mean, since you came, right congressman? Let me show you want I mean: Dr. King would not have been for a wall.

If you are a preacher of the gospel and you are asking your people to tithe but are not fighting for them to have a living wage you are lying!

You love Dr. King? Since 2001 the Tennessee state government has passed multiple voter ID requirements… under the lie of voter fraud. What you should be passing in Tennessee is early voting and same day registration and more access to the ballot. The courts have said voter ID is a form of systemic and surgical racism. Nobody talked about voter fraud until black people and brown people started voting in mass.

Here’s what strikes me when these two sermonic moments are held together: Rev. Barber has absolutely no problem moving between the gospel foundation of grace and the biblical mandate to pursue justice. On the one hand, he refuses to hate or dehumanize those whom he sees as a genuine threat to the well-being of poor people because he knows his own sinful tendencies. And on the other, he is willing to publicly call out the state’s elected officials to their faces for the way they have oppressed those they represent.

It’s been my experiences that this ability – holding together grace and justice – is almost entirely lacking in white pulpits. It’s either one or the other. A preacher will mostly proclaim justice or grace. Those who preach one over the other may very well believe in the theological importance of both, but they choose which is most important and relegate the other to an occasional sermon or an optional Sunday School class.

In his important book, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Randy Woodley points out the dualism that underlies much of western society. It’s this tendency that separates people from land and, more subtly, people from ourselves as minds are elevated above bodies.

One of the ways this dualism gets brought into white pulpits is seen when we preachers bifurcate grace from justice. We tend to preach to people’s minds, believing that grasping theological concepts like justification by grace through faith is what preaching is for. We forget that those in the pews are fully embodied people for whom tangible and visceral experiences of injustice are equal concerns and threats to their humanity. Even when a white preacher is convinced of the vital importance of both grace and justice, she will likely struggle to hold them together, choosing to focus on one or the other. At least that’s been my own personal experience.

But, as Rev. Barber makes plain, the grace and justice which are held perfectly together by Jesus can also be held together in our preaching. And that brings me to the final clip. My friend, the Rev. Charlie Dates, also for MLK Day, preached down in Arkansas. And like Rev. Barber, Charlie directly addressed the elected officials in the room about the systemic injustices that remain in both Arkansas and Chicago. But then, at his close, Charlie looked over the gathered crowd and said, “But I’d be half a preacher if I stopped there.” And for the final minutes of his sermon, having just boldly identified and denounced injustice, Charlie proclaimed the beautiful gospel of grace. Please watch the entire thing.

We need more preaching of this kind these days. More sermons like those that can be heard from Rev. Barber and Rev. Dates and so many other African American clergy on a weekly basis. We need to hear these sorts of sermons not only from black pastors but from the rest of us too. The place to begin, though, is not to copy any other preacher’s style, but to notice the holistic, non-dualistic view of people that under-girds such powerful preaching. And that, I think, is something we can all learn from these black preachers, whether or not we’ll ever step foot in a pulpit ourselves.

Scapegoating the Racists

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.

(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)

We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”

Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.

One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.

I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?

Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.

Seeing Through Cruelty

When I arrive at Jackson Park, having walked briskly the fifteen minutes from our apartment and crossed the footbridge which, for me, marks the edge of the neighborhood and the beginning of the park, I instinctively slow down. In warmer months the swallows swoop from under the bridge, chasing the insects which skim across the surface of the lagoon before returning to their nests hidden somewhere beneath my feet. I often have the paths and trees to myself so, aside from the distant traffic on Lake Shore Drive to the east and Stony Island off to my right, there aren’t many noises to compete for what I’ve come listening for: the birds. Not that I actually know what I’m listening for; I don’t. Anything that sounds like it might be a bird gets my attention. And so I walk slowly, one of my ears cocked slightly toward the canopy, trying not just to hear but to listen.

Listening like this is new for me. This winter is only the second that I’ve made this walk my weekly habit and the difference between the two is that I’m just slightly more aware of how poorly I’ve noticed the birds that populate the alleys, shores, and parks around our neighborhood. I’m learning to listen, and to see.

This spring I stood still for a long time near a willow that leans over the lagoon. Small flashes of yellow caught my eye. The warbler was dancing from branch to branch, disappearing and then, suddenly, perched again within my view.

Yellow Warbler

The little bird kept circling where I’d stopped along the mulch-covered path. Why hadn’t she moved on? I wondered. Then she dropped into the branches of a very small tree, about the level of my chest, and I knew. I’d stumbled into her front yard, or maybe it was her back porch. Either way, for the rest of the summer I’d stop and look. Soon there were two small eggs, the size and shape of one of those foil-wrapped chocolates my boys might eat at Easter, a dull white and covered in brown speckles. She’d flit around my head during most of my visits, finally resigning herself to my intrusive presence and perching herself proudly on her delicately built nest.

I pointed my boys toward her nest during one of our walks and they strained to see. Eventually the eggs hatched and the mother and her young vacated their little home. They’re somewhere in Central America now- Guatemala, or maybe Panama. At least I hope they are.

+++

Earlier this year it was reported that, since 1970, the number of birds in Canada and the United States has dropped by almost 30%. There are something like 3 billion fewer birds today than there were then. Habitat loss from industrial scale agriculture and development along with pesticides which impact a bird’s ability to gain enough weight for migration seem to be the culprits. Warblers, like the responsible mother in Jackson Park, have been especially hard hit: their numbers have dropped by 617 million. It staggers the imagination.

When my boys walk through the park with me, looking and listening for birds, I think about these small deaths, staggering in scope. There is a meadow we walk through on our walks, the height of the grasses marking the time of year. A sign along the path informs the walker that this is the Bobolink Meadow, named after a species that used to frequent the area. Which other birds used to make the trees and fields along this lagoon their habitat? Which of the birds we are used to seeing are slowly, imperceptibly to my novice eyes, disappearing?

Black-Capped Chickadee

Reading about these massive population losses raises in me a sense of helplessness. How do we even begin thinking about reversing such a dramatic decline? There is an awful feeling of inevitability about these incomprehensible statistics. But of course, it isn’t inevitable. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) dates to 1918 and was meant to protect vulnerable populations of birds from their human neighbors, including “any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The MBTA is an explicit acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the vulnerable birds with whom we share space and fate. It requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect birds and their habitats. But then, in 2017, the current presidential administration reinterpreted the MBTA so as to benefit industry and commerce. It’s the birds who’ve suffered.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Cruel. That’s the word I’ve returned to during this year of learning to listen and see. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about this inhumane tendency last year, when word of the policy change was first announced.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human.

+++

In her essay, Bruenig notes that in “the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge.” This is part of what makes the deaths of so many birds cruel, but I think there’s more to it. In the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, birds and other animals are often portrayed with great tenderness; the worthiness of our concern seemingly self-evident. So the psalmist writes, in God’s voice, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:11)

This divine care for creatures is presumed upon God’s people as one of our responsibilities. In Deuteronomy, in a section of practical instructions about how to live well in their new land, the Hebrew people are told what not to do when happening upon a bird’s nest. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (22:6-7) Every time I stumble onto these verses I’m happily stunned by God’s concern for his people and for the animals within their care. And also by the explicit connection between the well-being of the birds and our own.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” sang Mahalia Jackson, “and I know He watches me.” But according to Scripture, my own eyes are also meant to be on the sparrows, finches, thrushes, sandpipers, and, one day maybe, the Bobolink.

Hermit Thrush

And this is where I’m caught short. The cruelty inflicted on the birds with whom I share a neighborhood is not some shapeless, inevitable thing. It is my own. The decimation of their habitats and their young is possible, in part, because of my own dumb and distracted plodding over land that isn’t mine, that I mistreat simply by not listening or seeing.

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A few days ago, during our Christmas visit to see family in Washington, we took the 90 minute ferry ride through the Puget Sound to Friday Harbor. There’s a used bookstore there, a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, and after lunch we spent some time browsing its overflowing shelves. Typically, when visiting a used bookstore, I make stops in theology, essays, and biography. But this year I’ve added to these what is alternatively called “nature,” “nature writing,” “the natural world,” and the like. In the Friday Harbor shop I found a gently worn hardcover copy of the Peterson Field Guide for eastern birds, perfect for Chicago and other Midwestern places I’m likely to find myself looking for birds.

This beautifully illustrated book was written in 1980 and as I thumbed through its pages I couldn’t help wondering about how many of the species could no longer be found in the places they used to frequent. It’s a terrible thing for a book to be out of date because millions and millions of its subjects have perished.

Walking to the counter and paying $10.00 for that book felt, even in the moment, something like delusion. But it also may have been a very small act of hope. That, by choosing to listen and see, there still might be a world of birds and people worth saving on the other side of our cruelty.